Of the 32 highest-rated television programs this past fall, 31 of the them were NFL games. Think about that for a moment. The National Football League isn't just dominating the world of sports television, but it has emerged as the ultimate powerhouse in TV, period. You could argue that there isn't a brand or product in the United States that possesses that much media power, but the trouble with being on top is that everybody else is usually working a little harder to hit the bullseye on the target affixed to your back.
The NFL's grip on the American sports television throne might be significantly stronger than King Joffrey's in Westeros, but the league and its media partners will need to keep evolving in order to maintain the gap that exists between them and Major League Baseball, the NBA and NASCAR.
Everything is pretty much set in stone for the next decade due to the fact that the details have been ironed out regarding new television contracts for rights holders CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN, all of which run through the 2021 season. That said, there are still some steps the league can take in the short- and long-term future in order to stay ahead of the game.
Shifting from TV sets to computer, tablet and smartphone screens
Verizon is now paying $250 million per year for exclusive mobile rights to NFL games, and the league is just entering a five-year, $400 million deal with Microsoft. Both of those relationships should continue to grow as these upcoming TV deals play out. By the end of this decade, when extension talk is on the table, expect software and communications companies to compete hard for the right to go toe-to-toe with the old-school networks.
Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have just as much money to burn as Comcast, Viacom, News Corp and Disney, and as Baby Boomers fade while tech-savvy viewers from Generation X, Y and Z become more prominent, the NFL might soon discover that it's not longer valuable to have games on fixed channels. Before long, in order to watch the game, you'll likely just have to start a (legal!) stream on your laptop, tablet, phone or smart TV.
Exclusive team-by-team television contracts
This is a far-fetched but intriguing idea. And if it ever takes place, we're talking real long term. But it's weird that football teams are such varied commodities and yet networks have never tried to fight for them. We all know that teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers draw more viewers than others, and yet they're technically being sold at the same rate as everyone else.
Revenue-sharing complicates things, but it wouldn't be surprising if at some point in the future the league granted certain teams the ability to negotiate exclusive TV deals, just like the one Notre Dame has with NBC. Why not sell the Cowboys to the highest bidder, right?
If you're looking for a potential early precursor here, it was announced in May that ESPN Radio would be carrying out-of-market Sunday afternoon games for five specific, popular teams. Radio rights are handled in a completely different manner, but that deal could provide a sample for a future television model.
ESPN's new deal with the league apparently grants the Worldwide Leader "3D distribution rights," but by all indication the NFL and its partners aren't on the verge of producing games in 3D. An NFL spokesman told me last year that nothing appeared to be imminent on that front, but network executives could see things differently, and there's a lot of fluidity here. 3D hasn't taken off in the sports world just yet, but all it will take is for one major network to adopt it in any major sport and the arms race will hit a new plateau.
Parts of the London Olympics were broadcast in 3D and ESPN has been producing select college football games with an extra dimension for several years, but it still hasn't quite taken off. You'd have to think the NFL will eventually look to jump on this.